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Author: Alex

The Struggle With Being Present

The Struggle With Being Present

Hello friends! It’s been a while hasn’t it? I so hope that you’ve been enjoying all the amazingness May has brought with her; wildflowers, blossoms, SUNSHINE! My goodness it feels great to be able to swish about in dresses again but not so good for the lazy git in me who hates shaving her legs (I flat out refuse to go above the knee).

While I would use this chance to apologise for my unplanned stint of absenteeism, I am choosing to forego excuses and admit to you that I was just busy living as best I could now that the longer evenings have slipped in and cold afternoon beers are perfectly acceptable. This refusal to apologise ended up being the basis for this post as I began to feel the familiar guilt creeping in when I realised I hadn’t written anything beyond work emails and social media captions in weeks.

Truth be told I am consciously trying to enjoy the perks of Spring with no strings attached. This might sound ludicrous to some people but for those of us who are on the never-ending hamster wheel of social media the struggle to keep up is very real. There’s a running joke amongst many that if you didn’t put it in on Instagram then it didn’t happen which is a frightening truth I have come to see in myself.

A few weekends ago Andrew and I took a stroll to a local woodland to see how the bluebells were coming up. I had taken the camera to snap a few photos and asked Andrew (the ever-patient Insta partner) to take a few portraits of me while I was there. Now this is nothing new for either of us but Andrew nervously commented how he would like to go somewhere just once without the need to document it and felt that I wasn’t being present when we were exploring these places together because of my addictive need to get as many beautiful photos as possible.

I might have looked hurt for a second but the truth was he was right. I’m not sure if this is because of social media or because I truly love photography but it is an obsession I am becoming more and more aware of. I have definitely been that friend at dinner who takes a quick video or photo of the food before we eat and I have definitely visited a place based on how Insta-worthy it is. And while I know there is no real harm in this (and I am certainly not alone!), I am only recently seeing how it’s beginning to affect my own ability to be present especially when I am with the people I love.

Doing it for the ‘gram is not something I want to be known for. I recently read a piece by Mel Wiggins recently where she spoke about adding value and being more conscious about what we decide to share with the world be it through blogging or social media and it made me think about why I started blogging in the first place. I have always wanted to use this blog as a way to make a connection with someone else, share my thoughts and discover places that you or I didn’t know about. However I also want to keep that separate from my own wee moments that I have to myself or with those close to me. I don’t want to interrupt that time just because I see an ivy wall and think “OMG I HAVE TO GET A PHOTO HERE!” because does it actually matter if I keep something for myself?

I want the people I love to get all of me when I’m with them, not a half-present scroller who is double checking if she got a decent photo or replying to comments on her latest post. I also want you guys, the folks who I love to share stories with, to see the real genuine side of my life. While it might be hard to believe, I actually do love to visit the apple blossoms when I go to visit my family in Armagh and I live for exploring new places on my weekends. However I will be making a conscious effort to not put pressure on my spare time to produce pleasing content proving I did something worthwhile with my time because we all deserve time to just be, right??

Don’t get me wrong, I will continue to share photos and words from places I want you to see and I think are beautiful because that brings me immense joy! Sitting here writing and editing cross-legged on the sofa after a day of work (with jeans unzipped naturally) makes me stupidly happy because I love nothing more than being honest whether it be through my writing and photography. I also want to be able to forgive myself for the moments of supposed weakness when I see something beautiful and want to capture it. There is absolutely no shame in doing something that makes us happy so there should be no shame when we want to record or share it but for me the key is creating those boundaries where I don’t feel like I’m living my life through a screen.

With that in mind and in the spirit of Mental Health week I have decided to set myself a few boundaries in the hope it might help me become a more present person but also become more relaxed and focused. In case you’re feeling the same I’ve decided to share them but please let me know if you have any of your own thoughts that you’d like to share too!

Allocate Time for Social Media

For a while I was sharing on IG stories, Instagram and Facebook multiple times throughout the day but now I allocate a short time in the evening after dinner to do all of this. It means I’m not having to constantly check my phone for replies or comments and I’m spending a lot less time on my phone because of it.

Leaving My Phone Behind

I’ve been doing this recently when I go for a big walk or get out in nature. I’ll take my camera just in case but just not having my phone in my pocket removes the temptation to check for updates and allows me to feel so much more present.

Posting Less

For a while there I was completely guilty for buying in to the social media climb. I really wanted to see my numbers grow which convinced me that I had to be present on social media throughout the day and post a photo at least once. This pressure meant I was posting photos and content that felt rushed and irrelevant which meant that my following weren’t really seeing me. At the end of the day, an authentic following is one who you engages with you naturally and who continue to support you no matter how often you post. This is a lesson I am so glad to have learned and now I’ll only post a few times a week when I have the time.

Using Apps

I downloaded the Forest app to help gain a bit of willpower in my moments of weakness. The app allows you to plant a seed and the longer you manage to leave your phone the seed will grow in to a tree. It’s been a great tool for me because I’m a visual person who needs to see the reward so I’ll be keeping it up (especially in the office!).

The Best Local Places to Find Wildflowers

The Best Local Places to Find Wildflowers

Fun fact: one of my first jobs was in a florist. OK maybe not that fun but it’s true! Back in yesteryear when I was 16, I worked each Saturday and Sunday in a wee shop called The Flower Bowl in Armagh for the grand whopping sum of £3.50 an hour. While the money sounds like absolute pittance now, in my mind I thought I was rich (it funded my addiction to Natural Collection lipgloss).

What brought me the most happiness though was the fact I was being paid to be surrounded by all kinds of beautiful flowers. Each weekend my fingers turned green and numb making up bouquets in a room that was freezing cold to keep the flowers fresh. I got to know the names of weird and wonderful exotics (Bird of Paradise, Proteas) and discovered that there were about a million species of Chrysanthemum. I beamed as I saw the bouquets I had created being sold because I saw how they brought such a simple joy to people’s day. As a teenager it was the beginning of a lifelong passion for flowers and nature and was probably one of the reasons I ended up studying Ecological Science at university a few years later.

Now that I’m an old lady that love for flowers is still there. I buy fresh flowers almost every week, breaking up a bouquet in to glass jars and dotting them around the house. I’ve even been known to dabble in a bit wreath making if you don’t mind. However when Spring arrives I stop buying and start foraging. Our woodlands, gardens and even roadsides come to life this time of year which makes it an absolute dream for gathering. ‘Tis the season for colour and beauty and in light of this I’ve decided to share a few of my favourite local spots with you lovely lot!

While it’s OK to pick flowers in most of these places, some of the areas are protected so the wildflowers are just for gazing lovingly at (and for plenty of Instagram pics of course). If you’re ever unsure about picking a wildflower in case they could be endangered, it’s best to look it up or just leave it but don’t worry, there are plenty of flowers that are free to collect (within reason, please don’t go mad and completely devastate a patch to fuel you’re habit, OK?)

Happy foraging pals!

The Best Places to Find Wildflowers

Lagan Meadows (for an urban oasis)

This oasis in the centre of Belfast provides the best spot for foraging and for finding a quiet place for a picnic in the city. The place comes to life in Spring with butterflies everywhere but just mind the local cows since they’re known to wander around the meadows too!

Loughgall Country Park (for wild garlic and apple blossom)

In my native Co. Armagh there are a few local woodlands to explore but this is one of my favourites since you’re so close to all the local orchards that come to blossom in the Spring. If you’re feeling brave you might find the courage to ask a local orchard farmer for a photo and some blossom to take home with you! I foraged for wild garlic here last year with my pal Rebecca taking the photos which you can see more of here as well as a wee recipe for wild garlic pasta too.

Rowallane Gardens (for manicured gardens rustic woodland)

While you can’t pick flowers in the gardens, this remains one of my favourite gardens in NI which comes to life in the Spring. There’s even a rustic conservatory with climbing foliage, a perfect Instagram scene! To find the wildflowers you have to walk up around the house to the woodland that spreads behind it. This is my favourite part and is a lot quieter than the gardens.

Cavehill Country Park (for bluebells)

A carpet of bluebells dominate the floor of the woodland for only a few short weeks but it’s worth a visit this time of year to see the sea of blue. Make sure not to pick the Spanish bluebells though since the species is endangered! You can find wild garlic here too which you will probably smell first since it’s so sweet.

Crawfordsburn Meadow (for diversity)

This reserve is protected so unfortunately you can’t forage here but it’s a beautiful place to admire this time of year and take plenty of photos! There aren’t many meadows left in Ireland so this place is really special especially since the woodland connected to it is just as beautiful. You can even hear the waves crashing on Crawfordsburn beach too!

Rathlin Island (for abundance)

This has to be my favourite place to scour for wildflowers since there is just so many different species to discover. The remoteness of Rathlin Island means that the wildflowers have the opportunity to really take over the island so while everyone is searching for the puffins, you can hunt for all the pretty flowers on the rest of the island!

The Beaches of Connemara

The Beaches of Connemara

To be barefoot on a Connemara beach in April is the closest I think I’ll ever get to a miracle. We had driven down to the west coast from Belfast the night before and the weather had been wild as we arrived in to the mountains. The wind was howling and the rain turned the landscape in to a muddy watercolour painting with hundreds of waterfalls washing across the roads taking us to Letterfrack. April showers take on a new meaning in Connemara and it was safe to say that expectations for the weekend had taken a back seat as we finally approached Rosleague Manor, our base for the weekend. We ran up to the entrance to avoid getting soaked and when entering the hallway it felt like the antithesis of outside. There was an instant feeling of warmth from the open fires burning in the drawing rooms to the friendly welcome from Mark (a third generation member of the Foyle family who runs Rosleague) and I thought to myself, “even if it rains all weekend I reckon we’ll be just grand in here”.

We had gone to bed early that night, weary from the long drive and hours of conversation on the road. While I was delighted to be curling up in a beautiful bed in a manor house, I secretly hoped for a miracle, just a patch of blue sky so we could see the views that I knew were around us. The next morning I was woken up by the sunlight streaming through the curtains at about 6.30am and it took me a moment to register why I was awake so early. I eventually realised that it was sunlight, SUNLIGHT, that woke me up! I bounced out of bed and practically ran to the lake to soak in the morning (you can hear more about this walk and see photos in my previous post here).

After breakfast we set off on our drive, energised by the sun that continued to beat down with no cloud in the sky for competition. We took the Sky Road, an obvious choice on a day like this which provides the most amazing views of the Atlantic and the hundreds of islands that seem to hug the coastline like barren satellites. We stopped off at as many beaches as we could as the temperatures started to rise to a balmy 15 degrees and that’s when I found myself at Mannin Bay, barefoot without a cardigan or goosebump to be seen!

Blue skies met even bluer waters and I had to keep reminding myself that I was in the same part of the world I fell asleep in. Connemara is truly a land of contrasts with a clear day completely transforming the coast and the mountains that loom over it. The mountains became golden with the few clouds creating shadow shows as they drifted lazily across the sky.

We drove most of the day beach-hopping and stopping off for seafood when our stomachs began to rumble. We ate outside on the streets of Roundstone at O’Dowd’s; me wolfing down crab claws and Andrew his staple of battered fish and chips. I drank a glass of white wine and could feel my chest burning a little as the sun bore down and not a trace of wind could be found in the air. I felt unashamedly smug as I closed my eyes and soaked up every ounce of vitamin D I could manage since it had been about 6 months since my poor bones felt anything like it.

Connemara is famous for its wild weather and landscape but few know the Connemara we got to experience last weekend. The turquoise waters, the white beaches, the burned cheeks from the Spring sun. If you ever find yourself as lucky as I was then please make sure to visit the beaches I have listed here. I’m sure they’re just as beautiful when weather is bit more turbulent, the seas furiously stormy and the wind blowing because that is the romantic view most have of the west coast but when the winds settle, the clouds part and the sea calms, well you have a pocket of paradise right before you.

THE BEACHES OF CONNEMARA

Mannin Bay

The water here is spectacular so no surprise that it’s a favourite spot for water sports. If you’re not too keen to brave the water by snorkelling then you can take a kayak out and spy the marine life swimming beneath you in crystal clear waters. It was empty when we were there and incredibly peaceful too so you might just get the water all to yourself.

Omey Island

The island is connecting to the mainland by a tidal strand that is only permissible during times of low tide. The strand is popular for families who fancy a bit of sand castle building and beach combing but we ventured on to the island itself with hardly a person in sight. There’s a beach on the far side of the island which was deserted and felt incredibly private save for a few neighbourly heifers and their calves.

Dog’s Bay

This is probably the most popular beach in the area and for good reason. The bay provides safe calm waters for young kids to splash about it and the water is just as clear as Mannin too. The long white sandy beach is great for walking off a lunch and the mountains behind you provide a stunning backdrop to gaze up at when you walk back to your car. Roundstone is close by too and a lovely harbour town to grab some lunch in.

Coral Strand

Typical of Ireland this beach is known for its folklore since it’s said that if you pick up a fistful of coral sand in each hand you have two choices. If you want to have luck in love then you through the sand in your left hand over your left shoulder. If you want luck in money then you should through the sand in right hand over your right shoulder. You can’t do both though, sure ye can’t have too much luck! Apparently this beach has some of the warmest waters too so shouldn’t be too terrifying to take a dip in if you’re feeling the need to cool off from the Connemara heat.

Stepping in to Spring in Connemara

Stepping in to Spring in Connemara

It was Friday last week when we found ourselves making the 5 hour trek to Connemara. We’d deliberated over the trip for a while because it was a fair jaunt to go for only two nights and since Andrew is a freak when it comes to devaluing his car he worried that his precious might suffer with the distance (is this a guy thing or what?!). What convinced us though was our desperate need for a change of scenery and there is truly nowhere else for scenery in Ireland but Connemara! So off we went with the car packed and lovingly checked over by Andrew (she gets treated nicer than me sometimes) with podcasts at the ready to keep us occupied while we made our way south west.

We had been invited down to Connemara by Ireland’s Blue Book who I had worked with before when I had visited their beautiful Castle Grove property back in February. They have a collection of 54 historical houses, castles and manors scattered across the most romantic locations in Ireland and they had asked us to visit Rosleague Manor House, a pink ivy-clad piece of gorgeousness found just outside Letterfrack on the banks of Ballinakill Bay.

Before our trip we tried to plan for all sorts of weather since Connemara is well known for it’s unpredictable climate. You might as well forget any sort of forecast checking because it seems to change every hour and you kind of just have to roll with the punches be it rain, hail or sunshine. We hadn’t our hopes set very high coming in to Co. Galway that evening since the wind was howling through every gap in the car and the rain was lashing against the windows making the mountains look like sad brown smudges. Andrew wasn’t too impressed after having driven half the day but I had this doggedly annoying positivity that we might get a glimmer of sunshine, even a pocket of blue sky would make it all worthwhile!

We finally arrived at the manor just after sunset (or at least we thought so since we hadn’t seen the sun since we left Fermanagh) and were met by Mark at reception, a third generation owner and member of the Foyle family who took over the house 50 years ago back in 1968. Mark is incredibly warm and seeing how knackered we were from the drive, took us off to our room and organised a table for us to eat once we’d rested our bones for a minute or two.

The room wasn’t so much like a bedroom but more like a small apartment (my university flat was definitely smaller) with beautiful French windows that opened up to a private patio overlooking the bay. I looked at the huge bed and wanted to collapse in it immediately because who doesn’t need to sleep at least one night of their lives in a curtained bed?? But we had dinner to eat first so we dragged ourselves to the dining room which, to our sweet relief, was surprisingly casual given the surroundings.

We settled back and ordered some French wine before tucking in to some local dishes. The manor restaurant takes advantage of the landscape surrounding them so all their dishes include the freshest ingredients from the doorstep. I went for the monkfish and Andrew opted for the Connemara lamb rack which we practically inhaled after a day on the road. Feeling very relaxed after a few glasses we went all the way and ordered desserts; creme brûlée for him (always if it’s on the menu) and for me a chocolate piece of deliciousness that I can’t remember the name of (it sounded French!) along with caramel ice cream – YUM!

We trotted off to bed after we licked our plates and pretty much passed out as soon as our heavy heads hit the freshly plumped pillows. Having fallen asleep so early, I woke up just after sunrise much to Andrew’s annoyance. I think his least favourite trait of mine is the fact I wake up early when we’re supposed to be on our “holidays” while he wants to savour the lie-in as much as possible. My argument is I find quiet mornings to myself the biggest luxury of a holiday and when I woke up to see the sun beaming through the curtains I couldn’t contain myself!

To give the man some peace I threw on some clothes, grabbed my camera and opened the french doors to explore the grounds of the house. I found a garden path that took me down to the bay and followed it as the golden light of sunrise bathed everything around me. When I reached the water it was like glass, the mountains reflecting like a mirror. I was dumbstruck for a few minutes as I tried my best to soak every second in because I had it all to myself and that felt so special.

I watched the mist rolling across the far side of the bay for a while and kept walking along the beach to take a few photos. I was wearing pumps (rookie) and nearly lost them a few times in the beach which technically was more bogland in parts. I did as best I could to walk around but suddenly came to a stream that was pouring in the bay which was blocking my path. I was determined to see more of the view and I must have been still been half asleep because I just walked on through the stream like a complete eejit asking for a good dose of pneumonia!

It wasn’t so much cold as physically painful but I continued on because I’m a nutcase and tried to convince myself that this is what real photographers do. Or at least people with half a brain anyway. Wiggling my toes to bring them back to life I walked on round the bay and stood for about an hour in complete quiet, listening to the soft sounds of Connemara and smiling up at the blue skies that looked to be staying for the day. It’s times like this that I’m glad I’m a morning person.

Eventually I realised I needed to head back and get a hot shower to warm my wee hooves and after that I tucked in to breakfast which consisted of the following: 2 x croissants, granola with yogurt and berries, local salmon with scrambled eggs, local apple juice and lots of tea. While I was making my way through my feast (while Andrew was still tucked up in bed) I noticed that the same staff were serving me as the night before. Over the course of the two days the people who worked there became so familiar it was as if I joined a small family in this beautiful big house. They would chat away to us, filling us in on local favourites and where we should head off to. Even the guests became familiar (and as the hotel is dog-friendly, their pets too!), with one particular German couple being my favourites. Later that evening I would walk past them on the front lawn where they had parked themselves facing the harbour with a beer to watch the sun go down. They called out to me, “We are like a couple from the 1930’s!” as they both laughed together. My heart fell to pieces.

The rest of the weekend was spent exploring the beaches and roads of the countryside while we thanked our stars for the change in weather. Connemara truly shines when the clouds decide to part. l mean literally shines as the brown landscape dazzles gold in the sunlight. The colours that were muted on our arrival became saturated and I understood why so many poets and artists and writers have used this land as their muse. It awakes the dreamer, the wild restless soul seeking for something to make them feel alive. At the very least it made me feel so lucky to be able to call this island home and to have the bed at Rosleague to sleep in after a day of adventure.

I would massively recommend using Rosleague as your Connemara base if you ever find yourself tempted by an escape to the wild Atlantic coastline. I can genuinely say that we’ll definitely be back again and I can only hope that we have the sheer luck to have blue skies the next time too!

I’ll be posting more photos of our trip including all the secret and no-so-secret beaches we managed to squeeze in one day but for now enjoy some of our memories from Rosleague and the grounds we explored while we were there.

Local Favourites: Newtownards

Local Favourites: Newtownards

After the last big chill of St. Patrick’s weekend, Spring has decided to grace us with her presence here in Ireland – finally! The days are suddenly a wee bit longer, a wee bit warmer and a wee bit sweeter. Maybe we can all stop talking about how freezing that winter was now?!

We had the Monday off after Paddy’s Day and after waking up to snow in Dublin the day before, our expectations were fairly low for weather at home in Belfast. You can imagine my giddy surprise then when I saw actual sun-rays beaming through the curtains the next morning; I could even hear birds singing outside! Andrew wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as I was about the glorious day that stretched ahead of us as he tends to be fairly melodramatic in the mornings. He even purchased a black-out eye mask recently for his delicate peepers and wears ear plugs so the kids next door don’t wake him up – not exactly a morning kind of guy (and a guy who will get a major shock when he becomes a Dad one day).

After he managed to peel himself from the scratcher I immediately told him we were headed for an adventure in the spring sunshine (he is so lucky to have me, I know). I knew he wouldn’t have wanted to head too far but lucky for us there are tonnes of pretty spots within quick driving distance of Belfast.

I chose to heads towards Newtownards which is about 15 minutes from Belfast and sits at the very northern tip of Strangford Lough. It’s a town I’ve enjoyed getting to know a little more and the area around it is full of places to explore, some of which are fairly unknown to those living in the city up the road.

I’ve listed a few of my favourite locations in the area for food, photography and views to help entice you towards the Lough. It’s definitely a place worth venturing to now the brighter days are among us, even just to catch a glimpse of an Irish golden sunset melting in to the Mourne mountains on the other side of the water.

Scrabo Tower

The tower is an imposing presence above Newtownards and can be seen from pretty much everywhere in the North Down area. This means that there are killer views the lough and on a good day you can even spy Scotland in the distance if you squint hard enough!

The hill is a bit of a steep climb so your thighs won’t thank you but you can rest them at one of the picnic stops on the way. You can actually wander inside the tower during the summer months to learn a bit more about it’s history too but mostly I like to admire it from outside where the wind isn’t blowing and the sun is shining.

Mahee Island

About a 5 minute drive outside of Newtownards lies Mahee Island, an island connected to the mainland by a tiny wee road that seems to lead to hundreds of wee islands. There is something very secretive about these islands, most of them are privately owned so you can’t be too nosy but Mahee Island itself is welcome to tourists and is perfect for getting to know a completely different side of Co. Down.

There are castle ruins to explore, empty beaches to stroll on and clear blue waters to canoe your way through to get a better view of all the islands. There’s even a wetland centre too which showcases the huge variety of wildlife in the area too. It’s definitely a hidden gem on the banks of the Lough and a perfect place to take the bikes out to if we’re ever blessed with a good day.

Haptik

Do you know those cafés you visit for the first time that make you think to yourself: I would love to run a place like this? Well Haptik is one of those places. We ate there for the first time recently and as soon as we walked in I knew I would be back many times.

The industrial décor was right up my street (anyone who follows me on Instagram will see this in my stories!) but the food was what impressed us most. The menu had an Australian brunch feel to it with Andrew practically licking the smashed avocado off his plate. Johnny (who runs the place along with his wife) was super friendly and told us they do monthly supper clubs too so I’m now following them on Facebook to make sure I can book on to the next one!

The best surprise of all though was upstairs where they have an ongoing art exhibition and amazing children’s shop call Wu Concept. It’s the perfect place to pick up a gift for a wee one or just to go and feel extremely broody (which was what I did).

Mount Stewart

Mount Stewart is a National Trust favourite and a popular summer destination epecially among families. The gardens come to life in the warmer months with a lake to stroll around away from the crowds.

The house is now open for tours too if you’re feeling particularly aristocratic with events running throughout the year too. I tend to visit the house in the late afternoon because it has the perfect sunset view over the water which is always the perfect way to end a day of adventure.

How Has Grief Changed You?

How Has Grief Changed You?

Grief is not an easy topic to write about for many obvious reasons but mostly because it’s so deeply personal that I feel that by sharing my own experiences I am exposing the very rawest corner of my soul, the part that is covered in scars and afraid of being hurt again. Suffering extreme loss is unfortunately something that most of us will experience and so I also feel a sense of selfishness too when I talk about my own grief; how dare I have the audacity to write about my own woes when so many are going through the same thing?

Except there are times when I must write about it because the words and memories are bubbling up within me when I am missing her more than ever. Losing my sister undoubtedly changed who I was and how I viewed the world from the second I let her go. I was suddenly left with an unbearable amount of questions about life that few were able to answer so I was forced to learn on my own, attempting to overcome the emotional roadblocks that would come shattering down at any moment.

When we lost Amy the process of saying goodbye to her was like an out of body experience, as if a part of me was watching down and thinking: is this actually happening? I was standing by her hospital bed watching the life slowly slip out of her but my mind felt confused; her hands were warm, her chest was rising, surely she wasn’t dying? It was an incomprehensible moment when I was left searching for the final words I wanted to whisper in her ear because words alone weren’t enough to encapsulate the love I had for her. How could I articulate how grateful I was to share a wonderful childhood with her? Or how angry I was that I wouldn’t have her for the rest of my adult life?

Suffering the loss of someone we don’t want to live without is an evolving rollercoaster of lessons that can last a lifetime; I continue to learn things about myself because of the grief I carry around in my heart every day. Some lessons can be dark and painful, mostly arriving in the depths of night when I am racked with worry and the grief washes over me in tidal waves. These moments are when I am at my lowest, targeting the weaknesses within me and dredging up the fear I battle to suppress in the light of day. For those that are grieving, bedtime can resemble the nightmares of our childhood and are when we feel most vulnerable because it’s when we feel most alone.

For me I am not only coping with the loss of Amy but I continue to feel robbed of the life I had before. Family celebrations, dinners and gatherings were never to be the same again and after she passed I was acutely aware that my role in the family had changed too. I am the eldest and I felt more responsible than ever for my youngest sister because I wanted her to still feel like I was going to be enough for her, that we would be OK just the two of us instead of the three we had grown up as. I also put more effort in to making my parents proud because I wanted them to feel like they’d done a good job, that they were still good parents despite everything.

While I would give anything to have Amy back, losing her taught me wonderful lessons too. My capacity for love and joy. My sense of adventure in even the simplest of moments. How aware I am when I see something beautiful. I have had to adjust to missing her every day but it has become threaded in to the very fabric of who I am, woven scars covering the cracks. I won’t get over the heartbreak but at the very least I can utilise it in some way to make life a little easier to bear.

The most significant change of all though has probably been how gentle I am with myself now during moments when my confidence is low. I no longer waste time beating myself down since this doesn’t accomplish anything other than helplessness. By practicing self-kindness I am allowing more room in my heart for the good things which is a bittersweet lesson I am very grateful for.

Grief has certainly changed me and it will continue to do so as I carry it over life’s hurdles but along with grief I will always have Amy. After all, she will always be my little sister and that relationship will never change.

Can you tell me about your own grief experience and how it has changed you? I would love to know x

Beer Pairing and Four Poster Beds at Castle Grove House

Beer Pairing and Four Poster Beds at Castle Grove House

The snow is falling incessantly outside my bedroom window this morning, tiny flakes tapping at the glass to remind me how much things can change in a matter of days. Only a week ago Andrew and I were on our way to Donegal for the night, arriving at Castle Grove House under blue skies and bright sunlight that only fed false promises of Spring. Oh to feel just a wee bit of heat again!

We had been invited to Castle Grove by Ireland’s Blue Book as part of a beer-pairing night the hotel were hosting in their award-winning restaurant (with local brewery Kinnegar’s providing all the pairings!). This was one of the first events I have ever been invited to as a blogger so I was unashamedly very excited about being there! It’s no secret that Andrew and I are lovers of Donegal since we usually visit the county every few months so we were never going to turn down a chance to spend a night in digs on the north coast, especially when there were craft beers involved!

Neither myself or Andrew had been to Castle Grove before and as we pulled in to the beautiful country lane that took us to the banks of Lough Swilly where the house is nestled, it felt as if we had crossed in to a different era completely. The manor house sits proudly as it would have done when it was first built in 1695 except the Grove family have been and gone and now the Sweeney’s are holding the fort and welcoming in fresh faces in to their home.

Inside it felt like not much had changed either; fires were crackling in grand fireplaces in numerous rooms downstairs, beautiful antiques decorated corners that I am sure had heard plenty of stories and old paintings hung on the walls above the sweeping staircase that led to the bedrooms upstairs, all of which were named after Irish literary legends (we were in the Jonathan Swift room which was just a bit fitting what with his connection to our hometown of Armagh!).

The room itself was not just a room but more like a suite straight out of Downtown Abbey equipped with a four poster bed and a cabinet full of crystal I was too terrified to touch. There were parts of the suite that were a wee bit dated (the bathroom for example looked like it hadn’t been updated in a few years) so lovers of modern finishes may not feel quite at home here. Personally I loved the quirky charm especially the bed since I had never slept in something that was so like the bed of every princess story I had ever read.

Though what struck me most about the house was it’s warmth. Everything about Castle Grove exudes the feeling of being so welcome, of being looked after and mollycoddled the minute you step through the door. Irene Sweeney, the manager and figurehead of the house, could always be found mingling with guests, tending to the fire and ensuring that everyone’e needs were met. She was genuinely delighted to have people coming to visit her wee part of the world and hosting events like the beer-pairing night was a way for her to showcase the house and everything Donegal has to offer.

Which as it turns out, is a lot. The beer pairing event delivered more than we were expecting, each course having been meticulously curated by Chef Brady and the head of Kinnegar Brewery, Rick LeVert. The Donegal oysters specifically were a sensation for me (Andrew is still sitting on the fence when it comes to oysters) and the dessert was practically licked off the plate. Each beer was introduced by Rick allowing us to understand why the flavours on our plate were designed around the flavours in our glass. It was obvious that great care had went in to the night which, judging by the hum of contentment around room, was a complete success.

I practically had to roll myself out of the dining room after we finally finished eating, only having enough energy for a few moments by the fire before collapsing in my fairytale bed. Next thing I knew it was morning which I welcomed by opening the shutters of my sash windows half-expecting cartoon birds to flutter around my head. We woke up slowly leaving just enough time to meet in the dining room for breakfast (are we the only one’s who leave it until the last 10 minutes?) which was the obligatory full Irish breakfast and lots of tea.

The sun was streaming in and not wanting to miss another moment of Donegal fresh air, we said our thankful goodbyes to Irene and the staff after a quick stroll around the grounds. We were told to make a beeline for Portsalon where we could find blue flag beaches empty of crowds (and in true Donegal style it over-delivered). We drank in the salty air and when the Atlantic winds settled for just a moment we could feel the head of the late-February sun on our backs, a sensation I can barely remember feeling now it’s snowing outside!

Not wanting to end things with Donegal just yet, we took a drive to Glenveagh Castle (so I could play princess just a little longer) which surprisingly neither of us had visited before. It’s actually younger than Castle Grove but looks like it’s been hidden on the lough for centuries longer. There’s a great trail for walkers and cyclists from the visitor centre to the castle but for those with little time or patience (or unruly kids) can hop on the minibus which saves a fair amount of time.

The views are incredible once you reach the castle with Scot’s Pine trees decorating the edge of the lake, providing plenty of magical forest walks. There are beautiful gardens to stroll in too which I can only imagine are even more outstanding in the summer. The views reminded me of Connemara, another essential destination in Ireland where Glenveagh Castle could be compared to Kylemore Abbey as a diamond in the midst of a wild landscape.

There is a real rawness to Donegal that I think has percolated to the people who live there. The people are as open as the land and the sea that batters it’s north and west so it’s only natural to feel yourself open up once your feet are on the ground there. For me there is a collective sigh from my mind and body when I’m Donegal, I release everything I’ve been holding within me and I feel instantly lighter, more open. It’s no wonder I felt so welcome by everyone at Castle Grove, it’s doors are open like the people inside, happy to invite anyone in need of a warm meal and cosy bed or even just a drop of tea by the fire.

Winter Escape to Zell am Zee: 5 Tips for Planning a Couple’s Ski Trip

Winter Escape to Zell am Zee: 5 Tips for Planning a Couple’s Ski Trip

My first morning in Zell am See went a little like this: the sunlight filtering in through the curtains woke me up early and the cool alpine air coming from the open window made me burrow myself in to the duvet for just a minute more. Braving the cold, I opened the door to the balcony with a cup of tea clasped in my hands to keep me warm. The mountains towered above me and I wondered at how quiet it was. When I listened a little harder I started to make out the sounds of the mountain; snow falling off the trees, the sounds of skis on the virgin snow as early risers were taking on the first slope of the day and the mountain streams making their way to the lake below.

I watched the mist from the lake slowly snake it’s way up the valley towards us. I looked up to the sky to see if more snow was to come but all I could see were blue skies with the snow glistening in the sunshine and I thought to myself: now this is a winter escape!

Andrew and I had been planning on going on a ski trip to Austria since our first one in France with another couple two years ago. We both love the mountains but after failing to gather friends to go away on a group trip (the older we get the more difficult it is to get people to commit to dates which is wholly depressing but completely understandable of course), we wondered if we could go on our own and still have the same kind of fun. Ski trips are usually associated with a big group of people, lots of après-ski shenanigans and racing down the slopes so I was a bit apprehensive about going away as a couple; would we have as much fun on our own??

Turns out I had nothing to worry about. We had a blast as we have done on every holiday we’ve taken together but this one felt really special. Everything felt so much more relaxed because we were able to move at our own pace. We could take as many slopes as we liked (or as little), we weren’t having to constantly wait for others to join us at the gondolas or spend hours deliberating about what side of the mountain to hit next. We were super-competitive and downloaded apps to record speeds and distances of the day which we argued at length about over beers in the afternoon. It completely changed my attitude to a ski holiday and I will never hesitate to book another for just the two of us again, it might just be the best way to ski!

If you have ever contemplated taking a winter break with your partner to the mountains, then I urge you, to DO IT. After all, where else would you go with the person who makes you feel on top of the world?

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5 Tips for Planning a Couple’s Ski Trip

1 Make it FUN

Andrew and I are fairly competitive and on the first day of our trip we downloaded the Snoww app which tracks all your data from your day on the mountain e.g. top speeds, distances, runs, altitudes. After every run we would check our speeds on the gondola taking us back up the mountain, teasing the slowest of the pair and wondering how much distance we would cover that day. It forced us to be a bit braver which made it so much more fun but it also allowed us to keep track of each other when we got lost or wanted to check where the other was too. Would definitely recommend downloading it, especially the more competitive couples!

2 Pick a romantic destination

We had toyed around with a few destinations but once I saw pictures of Zell am See I knew we had to go. The town sits on the edge of Lake Zell with the Austrian Alps circling above. At night, the town is a dream to walk around with narrow streets lit up with lights and music in the air, perfect for strolling hand in hand after a day on the slopes. During the day there’s a beautiful walk to take down by the lake to take in the mountains around you that will make you feel truly tiny! If you decide to visit Zell am See, I’d recommend a walk by the river before the sun goes down followed by a dinner at Deins & Meins. Once your belly is full, walk through the snow to The Gin House to finish the night with some cocktails and a good game of Stump.

3 Give each other space

While cruising down the slopes together was really good craic, there were times when one of us had more energy than the other (usually Andrew having more energy!) and so it was nice to be able to go off on our own and do own thing for a bit. One of my favourite parts of the day was heading back to the Daxer Hotel, having a bit of cake with my tea on the balcony and then heading down to the sauna for an hour on my own – bliss!

4 Plan a Day Trip

While I enjoyed every single moment on those mountains, I was ready to come back down to earth and explore a bit of the area around us. Luckily our flight home from Salzburg (very handily about an hour and a half from Zell am See) was in the evening so it meant we had most of the day to explore the city before the holiday ended. We got the train from Zell am See which was an incredible way to see the countryside; I sat with my nose to the window while Andrew slept! The snow was falling thick and fast when we arrived so we hopped in a taxi to the Old Town to have brunch at Café Tomaselli where Mozart apparently drank his coffee! It was beautiful and I inhaled as many pastries as possible before we wrapped up again and headed towards the Hohensalzburg Fortress. We took the funicular up to the fortress where we had views over the city which was a complete winter wonderland. The snow continued to fall as we walked through the streets of the Old Town and back to the train station to pick up our bags and head home. It was a really romantic way to end the trip and relax a little before heading back to the grind of normal life at home.

5 Be Patient & Considerate

Of course this tip is relevant for couples no matter where they’re going but specifically to choosing a ski destination, you should be considerate of your partner’s abilities and whether they board or ski before making a decision. We chose Zell am See because it offered a diverse range of options for both boarders and skiers (Andrew boards and I ski) which meant that we both felt challenged and never bored. We’re both intermediates which made it easier too but sometimes one partner might be a bit more advanced than the other so you should take this in to consideration too.

We were really happy with Zell am See and felt like there were enough black/expert runs to satisfy us on the days when our confidence was up and we wanted to push ourselves. It was an advantage that we were on the same experience level because we knew what slopes we were capable of and when one of us needed a bit more encouraging the other would be the cheerleader which saved many an argument!

Local Favourites: Linen Hall Library, Belfast

Local Favourites: Linen Hall Library, Belfast

When I enter a library I think I get the same feeling that many religious people might feel when they enter a beautiful church or cathedral. There’s a sense of calm that envelopes me and I almost feel like every cell in my body relaxes, as if I’ve arrived home. Being from the land of saints and scholars means that a love of literature is in my blood and to my luck I live on an island littered with beautiful libraries to explore, many on my very own doorstep!

 

With Valentine’s Day looming I thought it was apt that I visit the place that housed the oldest love stories in my city, the Linen Hall library. It was my first time visiting last Saturday and I almost missed the entrance entirely it was so neatly tucked between modern retail chains. Originally the library was located across Donegal Square where the City Hall now sits and while it’s current residence is a little more understated, it is still one of the most beautiful buildings in Belfast.

Founded in 1788, the library is the oldest in the city and is the last subscribing library in Northern Ireland. Inside there are beautiful desks with antique bankers lamp for the members to read their latest literary find as well as cosy chairs in different nooks and crannies for those who want to hide away from the city. You can people watch from the old stained glass windows that let the natural light flood in and spy on the folk sprawled on the grass outside City Hall.

The library was initially founded by the Belfast Reading Society but in 1792, the library became the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge whose aim was to ‘improve the mind and excite a spirit of general enquiry’, an ethos that has managed to live on and ensure the library’s survival despite attempts to crackdown on such free thinking throughout Belfast’s troubled past.

 

Their collection is impressive with the oldest book dating back to 1490 (De Avina written by Eastern physician Avicenna) but it’s their collection of Irish culture and politics that is truly remarkable. In fact, the first librarian was Thomas Russell, a founding member of the United Irishmen and a close friend of Wolfe Tone. The importance of maintaining and preserving Irish culture and her language lives on with weekly gatherings held each Saturday morning for Gaels to meet and speak in their mother tongue.

 

To find such a peaceful sanctuary in the chaos of a busy city is a rarity and one that should be cherished and protected. Thankfully the library has been able to move with the times and hosts a range of exhibitions and events all year giving more reason to return again, even if it’s just to find a quiet place to enjoy a cup of tea in the quaint café.

With free admission there is really no excuse not to visit this urban refuge. I know I’ll be back for sure, most likely on a rainy day when I can curl up on one of the armchairs and read while looking out at this ever-changing city.

All photos were taken by Marianne from Perfect Opening Line, a true local talent who I couldn’t recommend more! 

Surviving February: 6 Actions to Take When You’re Ready to Make a Change

Surviving February: 6 Actions to Take When You’re Ready to Make a Change

Hello friends. It’s been two weeks too long since I’ve visited this wee corner of my life and while it wasn’t something I had intended on doing, it just felt right to ease myself in to 2018 rather than going in guns blazing. I feel like January is the month for ideas but February is the month to start actioning them. January is a time to give our dreams the wiggle room to grow, to ruminate on those thoughts that have been niggling in the back of our minds, slowly pushing to the forefront so we can give them our full attention. It’s a time for reflection, reflecting on where we are and where we want to be. Mostly, it’s a time to spend dark evenings curled up by the fire with empty pages spread out before us to capture all the wild and messy daydreams that tumble from our sleepy brains. Those blank spaces can provide us with more energy during the winter months than any fire can.

Most of our fantasies may be fantastical in the darkness of winter, most may never see the light of Spring but there might be just one that could slip through the cracks. One good idea is enough to eclipse all others and while it might take a little longer to see the idea become more than just that, there is nothing quite like the feeling of that lightbulb moment. So while I might have been a little absent on the blog, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about the words I write here and the content that I share. I’ve been mulling and mulling about where I would like to see this space go, how I can push myself further creatively and go beyond writing as a hobby. The winter nights are for nothing but for imagining a fresh start in the Spring, am I right?

Now that we’re in February we would be forgiven for thinking that Spring is on our doorstep but sometimes the shortest month can feel like the longest. What’s good is that we still have time to plan ahead and start making sense of the scattering of possibilities that have been swimming in our head all winter. There is still a whole month of stillness left before Spring arrives and our bodies bend towards the sun and in to distraction. So I’m telling you to utilise these last dark hours and use the opportunity to focus on what you truly want for the rest of your year because you’re capable of anything and now is the moment to push yourself further.

Is there an idea that you have been secretly coveting? Do you get butterflies when you think about it but quickly convince yourself that it’s not possible before getting too carried away? Let February be the month of shutting the fearful voices out and embracing the butterflies. Let it be the month for ACTION. The best ideas are those that make you feel sick to your stomach and if it’s all you can think about then the scariest possibility would be to deny yourself the chance to step in to the light of a new opportunity.

Of course this is all easier said than done and it you would be perfectly understood for crawling under the covers until the bluebells start showing their wee heads but you would only be doing your dreams a disservice. Choose to surround yourself with positive reinforcements that will only encourage you further. In case you’re in need of a little inspiration, I’ve listed some of the actions I take when I need help in making a step towards a change. Right now I have a notebook of scribbles that might turn in to something and that in itself is pretty exciting. Let’s go February.

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6 Actions To Take When You’re Read to Make a Change

Listen

Podcasts are all the rage right now of course and one that I keep going back to for guidance when I need it most is Hashtag Authentic by Sara Tasker. It’s a podcast mainly aimed at creatives but there is a huge range of topics that are incredibly useful depending on where you feel you need the most direction. Another great one is Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame) which is a friggin’ joy to listen to in a bath on a winter’s night. I find myself just roaring out in unison with Elizabeth and her guests and feel ready to take on the world after an episode. Right after I dry my hair and moisturise of course.

Watch

‘In to the Wild’ is a movie I re-watch during the moments when I’m in need of a good kick up the ass. It never fails to bring a bit more perspective to any tough choice I’m currently having to make. Also the soundtrack is off the charts (Eddie Vedder you absolute LEGEND).

Read

There are enough motivational books out there to shake an insecure stick at but you don’t always have to stroll to the self-help aisle in order to feel inspired. One of my favourite books that I can rely on for some self-reflection is Walden by Henry Thoreau which I first read while I was in Africa for the first time. It was the reason why I fell in love with the natural world (second was David Attenborough) but mostly it engrained in me a sense that we have more power over our choices in life than we give ourselves credit for, one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. If you’ve already read Walden then anything written by Brené Brown is sheer inspirational gold dust. The woman is a motivational wizard. 

Do

While February can still invoke the temptation to hibernate and stay under the covers, the ever-so-slightly brighter mornings and evenings are the perfect encouragement to brave the fresh air and start wakening yourself up again. At some point this month try and take yourself on one of your favourite walks alone, preferably somewhere that’s close to any water source be it a river, lake, sea or puddle (NB: puddles may not encourage that much inspiration). Leave the headphones behind so you’re not creating a barrier between yourself and the world around you. Walk at your own pace, listen out for new sounds that you would normally ignore and look for signs of Spring. While focusing on your surroundings you’ll be surprised at the amount of new ideas that will pop in to your head and those moments of clarity will embolden you further when making decisions that might have seemed scarier while sitting at home.

Write/Draw

Some people are good with their words and others need the visuals in order to map out their plans. I’m a bit of both so when it comes to the blog, I have a notebook full of potential blog posts, ideal locations for photos, people who I would love to interview. These notes could be a list broken down in to categories (just call me Monica Gellar) and others are mapped as a brain storm with offshoots when my head is buzzing with too many thoughts that I need to see the bigger picture. These notes can sometimes be a load of nonsense but it is such a good feeling to see my ideas streaming from my pen and trying to put them all together.

Attend

If you’re planning on making a leap or big decision then you need all the encouragement you can get from peers who have made the jump before you. Networking is a Generation Z term that has been beaten to death but making connections with people who are in your field or are related to the choice you’re about to making is more rewarding than any other action I’ve listed above. Finding your tribe (that’s right, I said it) can be tricky but there are resources out there to help you find it. I’ve found Instagram to be a huge source of inspiration and I have created friendships (both online and offline) that have helped made this blog what it is. It’s how I found out about the Assembly Gatherings, a seasonal event run by Mel Wiggins that acts as a haven for creative women seeking inspiration. It’s where I found my tribe (said it again) and it’s an environment in which I can connect with like-minded women, bounce ideas off them and bask in encouraging words. By immersing ourselves in knowledge through gatherings, workshops or classes we are dipping our toes further in to our own potential. Want to start a blog? Connect with other bloggers. Want to start your own business? Search for similar local small businesses and find out how they did it. Allow yourself to be guided by those who you believe are on the path you want to be on and get climbing.